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...Over who to pitch against PDP candidate, Atiku Abubakar  

Akani Alaka writes on the challenges thrown up to Nigeria’s ruling All Progressives Congress, APC, ahead of its presidential primary following the emergence of former vice president Atiku Abubakar as the presidential candidate of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party, PDP.

As it is, Atiku who will be over 76 at the time Nigeria’s next general election is conducted in 2023 has another chance to realize his ambition of governing the country as the president. He earned the right to be on the presidential ballot again with his victory at the primary election of the PDP conducted at the special national convention of the party held last Saturday.
As predicted by analysts and confirmed by the results of the primary, the former vice president and Rivers Governor, Nyesom Wike were the front runners in the contest for the presidential ticket of Nigeria’s main opposition party. But even then, Atiku left no one in doubt that he is head and shoulder above other contenders for the ticket as he polled 371 votes.

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In the result of the primary election announced by the Chief Returning Officer and former President of the Senate, Senator David Mark, Atiku polled 371 out of a total of 763 votes cast by delegates at the primary. He beat Wike, his closest challenger by 134 votes while former Senate president Bukola Saraki came a distant third with 70 votes.
Speaking after he was declared the party’s presidential candidate for the 2023 election early Sunday morning, the former vice president described the primary election that produced him freest and a well-fought election. He pledged to work with the other aspirants and give them a sense of belonging if elected.
“Therefore, my fellow compatriots, I want to appreciate your efforts in deepening our democratic processes in this party. It was a well-fought primary election. So, I commend you for that and I look forward to working with you very closely. So that together we can build this party to a level where we can take over the government,” Abubakar said.
It is not yet certain how the other aspirants, especially Wike who had campaigned vigorously across the country for the presidential ticket take the outcome.
Indeed, the Rivers State governor was confident enough that he would win the ticket to declare himself as ‘not just one of the aspirants, but the 2023 presidential candidate of PDP at a church service in Port Harcourt weeks before the primary. The Rivers State governor has not officially reacted to the victory of Atiku who also beat his preferred presidential candidate for the party in 2019, Aminu Tambuwal to the presidential ticket of PDP. All eyes will be on Wike as Nigerians wait for his reaction in the days ahead.

Atiku’s Dilemma For APC
But for the ruling All Progressives Congress, APC, which has been finding it difficult to organize its presidential primary, the emergence of Atiku has now constituted a fresh dilemma.  The APC had initially fixed its primary for Sunday, 29 May, a day after the presidential candidate of the opposition party would have emerged.
The party’s game plan was to see who would emerge as the candidate of the opposition to be able to determine who among its over 23 presidential candidates can match him votes for votes in the 2023 election.
But following the extension of the deadline for parties to conduct their primaries by the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC by six days, APC had also shifted the special convention where its 2023 presidential candidate will be elected to Monday, June 6.
Some analysts who spoke to this newspaper last week said the emergence of Atiku has now put the APC in a dilemma ahead of that presidential primary. “APC was waiting to see who the PDP will elect as its presidential candidate.
Maybe they are expecting Wike. But with the emergence of Atiku, the leaders of APC must now return to the drawing board if they want their party to retain the presidency in 2023.” For the APC, Atiku will not just be a formidable opponent with the experience of many years of the presidential contests in his bag, but a well-resourced one.

A Formidable Opponent
Experience wise, the former Customs officer began his quest to rule Nigeria when he contested for the presidential ticket of the Social Democratic Party ahead of the 1993 presidential election. He lost to the late Moshood Abiola.
Atiku contested the presidency under the defunct Action Congress in the 2007 presidential election, coming third to Umaru Musa Yar’Adua of the PDP and Muhammadu Buhari of the ANPP. He returned to PDP after that election and contested for the 2011 presidential ticket of the party for the 2011 presidential election, which he lost to the then President Goodluck Jonathan.
He joined the APC ahead of the 2015 general election and also contested for the presidential ticket of the party which he lost to Muhammadu Buhari.
The former vice president returned to PDP and against all expectations, he got the presidential ticket of the party to contest against Buhari in the 2019 election. Though he lost the election to APC, Atiku garnered over 11 million votes, which is about 41 per cent of the total votes cast in the election.
Still, Atiku had always claimed that he won the election, but was rigged out by the INEC. Nevertheless, the former vice president had in his campaign for the 2023 PDP presidential ticket touted the nearly 12 million votes he scored in 2019 as ‘votes in the bag’ that he would bring into the contest for the election.

A Candidate For The North
Atiku, from Adamawa in North-east Nigeria as the PDP candidate will also attract the support of Northerners bidding for retention of the presidency in the Northern part of the country against the argument by those from the South who had been arguing that President Buhari should be succeeded by a Southerner.
Indeed, the election of Atiku was seen as a vote against the clamour for the rotation of the 2023 presidency in some quarters. This was not a surprise given the fact that some leaders of the party had argued that only a candidate from the North can return the PDP to the Aso Rock presidential villa in 2023.
With Buhari who had a large following in the North as evidenced in his usual over 10 million votes in the three of the four presidential contests he has been involved in not being on the ballot in 2023, the ballots in the region are available for the plucking.
This is aside from the wide network of political associates and structures Atiku has built up across the country over the years in his politicking ventures. “Woe betide you if you dare underestimate his political prowess and war chest. The legendary 12 million votes man, PMB, narrowly escaped Atiku’s onslaught at the ballot, in the 2019 general elections, and many believed that, had the elections not been postponed, he would have won. His continued attempts at the Presidency for over 30 years, have made him a veteran and master strategist at the polls. One can never tell, but he just might finally clinch it this time — if the APC does not take good care,” Tahir Ibrahim Tahir, the Talban Bauchi said in response to the emergence of Atiku as the presidential candidate of PDP.
While with over 25 aspirants vying for its presidential ticket, the APC can be said not to be lacking in who to put forward for the 2023 contest, the challenge is determining who among the lot can match the former vice president.

APC Ticket To The North Again?
For one, the emergence of Atiku may strengthen the hand of members of APC who had argued that the party, like the PDP, should also jettison zoning in determining the choice of its presidential candidate.
Such APC members had dismissed the argument that President Buhari’s successor should come from the South after the presidency had been in the North for eight years. Instead, they argued that only a Northerner can get votes that will be sufficient enough to deliver the presidency to the APC in 2023.
Indeed, Senate President Ahmad Lawan and Governor Mohammed Badaru of Jigawa State and former governor Ahmed Yerima were said to have been prevailed upon to join the presidential race in expectations of the possibility of the PDP giving its presidential ticket to Atiku as it has happened now.
Thus, a leading member of APC, Senator Orji Uzor Kalu had in a statement he released hours after the conclusion of the PDP primary asked the chairman of his party and his National Working Committee to “stamp their feet and zone APC presidential ticket to the North East”.
Kalu has been campaigning for the presidential ambition of Lawan. He had anchored his opposition to zoning on the failure of other aspirants from the South to support the micro-zoning of the APC presidential ticket to the South-east. He had argued that the North-east, like the South-east has also not produced a president for Nigeria.
With the emergence of Atiku, Kalu asks all presidential aspirants from the South to drop their ambition in support of the Senate president, arguing that the possibility of Nigeria’s next president coming among them is no longer feasible.
He also asked the president to pick Senator Lawan as his successor. “In every democratic setting, presidents and governors support and pick their successors. I call on President Buhari to pick a successor from the North-east and that will be the equity the South-east needs. With the North-east, the cycle will be closest to the completion of regions producing the president of Nigeria. By now, all APC aspirants should drop their ambition and support a North-easterner. Senator Ahmad Lawan is the destination. Congratulations to the North-east as we look forward to a president of Nigeria from the North-east,” he said.

Tinubu Steps Forward
Contrary to Kalu’s statement, Tinubu, a former governor of Lagos who is also considered to be one of the leading presidential aspirants of APC indicated in his congratulatory message to the PDP presidential candidate said he expected Atiku to be his worthy opponent if he can get the presidential ticket of his party.
“I welcome the victory of Alhaji Atiku Abubakar as the candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party in the just concluded primary. I look forward to squaring up with him as a worthy opponent in the coming election. I have known the former vice president as a formidable politician and a patriot who believes in the unity and progress of our dear country,” Tinubu said.
Aside from Tinubu and Lawan, the other presidential aspirants on the platform of APC are former minister of transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo; former minister of Niger Delta, Godwin Akpabio; former minister of Science, Technology and Innovation, Dr Ogbonnaya Onu; former Imo State governor, Senator Rochas Okorocha; Kogi State governor, Yahaya Bello, and former Ogun State governor, Senator Ibikunle Amosun.
The others are Pastor Tunde Bakare, Cross River State governor, Prof Ben Ayade; his Ebonyi State counterpart, Dave Umahi; Ekiti State Governor, Dr Kayode Fayemi; former minister of state for education, Emeka Nwajiuba; former Senate president, Senator Ken Nnamani, Senator Ajayi Borroffice; Mrs Uju Kennedy Ohnenye and former speaker of the House of Representatives, Dimeji Bankole.

Christian/Muslim Conundrum
However, aside from Tinubu, Osinbajo, Amaechi and Fayemi are also considered frontrunners in the race for the presidential ticket of APC.
While Tinubu is a Muslim and also seem to have gradually built up some sort of following in the Northern part of the country, it is doubtful if he can defeat Atiku in the zone in the presidential contest if he gets the ticket of his party.
Also, there have been arguments that the former Lagos State governor could be paired with a strong politician from the North who is also a Muslim to further boost his chances. But Christian groups had indicated that they would not accept or vote for a Muslim/Muslim ticket in the next presidential election. Then, there is Vice President Osinbajo, a Christian without a strong political structure who, as was learnt, is being campaigned against because of his religion in some parts of the North.
In the same boat with the vice president are Amaechi and Fayemi. If any of them emerges as the presidential candidate of APC, they will balance their ticket with a Muslim running mate. But can they get a running mate with sufficient clout to dampen Atiku’s foray in the North?
On the other hand, analysts also argue that contrary to the arguments of people like Kalu, the Senate president is not politically strong enough to defeat Atiku if the APC decides to go against the demands of its members from the South and give its presidential ticket to the North. Aside from this, APC dumping of the zoning may signal the end of the party as a national platform.
Tahir said if the party decides to abide by its unwritten agreement that a southerner should succeed Buhari, the former Lagos State governor will fit the bill:  “Tinubu as a southerner, is the only politician, that has exhibited the Northern brand of inclusiveness in politics. A former Northern governor and serving Senator, Kashim Shettima of Borno, is leading his campaigns. An honourable member from Kebbi state, Aminu Suleiman bought his forms for him and is mobilising groups for him across the North. Three-quarters of the National Assembly are rooting for him. Quite a number of the Northern governors have his support and a huge chunk of the delegates voting in the primaries, especially those from Kano, are already in his corner.”
But with Tinubu, will the APC also be able to sufficiently mobilise votes in the South-east where the PDP has always won the presidential election? And with former governor Peter Obi gaining ground especially among the youths in the South with his defection to the Labour Party can, APC get sufficient votes from the South with Tinubu?
Or with the cabal pushing former president Goodluck Jonathan who had defeated Atiku in the 2011 election leverage on the emergence of former vice president Atiku to push their agenda through at the primary? These are the dilemmas the ruling party will be confronted with as its members congregate in Abuja to choose their presidential candidate next week.